Gaining hope and healing after a cancer diagnosis

Buerkley Rose, RN, patient navigator; Hedy Kindler, MD, medical oncologist; Jessica Blackford-Cleeton, mesothelioma patient; Kiran Turaga, MD, MPH, surgical oncologist

Throughout her busy career, Jessica Blackford-Cleeton has provided training on public education and reporting systems to fire departments, fire services organizations and emergency management groups in Illinois and across the country.

Still, nothing could prepare the 32-year-old for her own crisis. In 2015, following recurring fatigue and abdominal pain, Blackford-Cleeton was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer. Mesothelioma develops in the linings of organs — most often the lungs, where it is linked to asbestos exposure. Blackford-Cleeton’s cancer was in the lining of her abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).

Only about 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States each year; peritoneal mesothelioma is even rarer, with just 500 to 800 cases a year (in comparison, more than 255,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. each year). 

Seeking the "best options and the best doctors," Blackford-Cleeton turned to the University of Chicago Medicine, which has a comprehensive program and team of experts devoted to mesothelioma diagnosis, treatment and research.  

With the support and guidance of her care team at UChicago Medicine, she was able to understand and successfully navigate her treatment options. Her treatment included surgery to remove the cancer, followed by a procedure called HIPEC (hyperthermic – or heated – intraperitoneal chemoperfusion), which targets and kills cancer cells that remain after surgery. 

UChicago Medicine is one of the few hospitals that offer HIPEC for both adult and pediatric patients. 

HIPEC has fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy because the medicine targets specific areas rather than circulating throughout the whole body. 

UChicago Medicine cancer surgeon Kiran Turaga, MD, MPH, is an expert in the specialized procedure, which begins with surgical removal of the patient’s visible tumors. Immediately following surgery, the patient’s abdomen is treated with a powerful dose of heated chemotherapy, which circulates for 90 minutes, destroying remaining cancer cells, before it is washed out.

HIPEC has fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy because the medicine targets specific areas rather than circulating throughout the whole body. Also, the heated medicine causes blood vessels to expand, allowing the chemotherapy to penetrate deeper and more effectively.

"I remember having a LOT of questions:  How long was the surgery? How big will my scar be? Will all the cancer be removed? What are the side effects of HIPEC chemo as opposed to traditional chemo? What can I expect after surgery? When will I start to feel normal again? Will I be able to take care of myself? How long will I be in the hospital?  I'm sure there were a lot more," Blackford-Cleeton said.  "Dr. Turaga very patiently answered everything and put my mind at ease with his knowledge and experience."

Oncologist Hedy Lee Kindler, MD, the founder and director of UChicago Medicine’s mesothelioma program, led the care team. "Dr. Kindler was the first doctor I spoke to who had extensive knowledge of the disease," Blackford-Cleeton said. "She also answered my questions and really helped with my anxiety about being newly diagnosed."

Blackford-Cleeton was most concerned about how the extensive surgery might affect her ability to have children. She understood that tumors were in many of her organs and they would have to be removed.  Prior to surgery, she gave Turaga a wish list of what she hoped could be spared: at least one ovary and her navel.

"Dr. Turaga came through — he saved my ovary and even the belly button," she said. "Everyone was extremely supportive with my goal to start a family."

One year after surgery, she was cleared to begin in vitro fertilization. In August 2017, Jessica and her husband, Brandon Cleeton, were thrilled to welcome their son, Avery. 

Jessica Blackford-Cleeton, Brandon Cleeton, Avery Cleeton
Jessica Blackford-Cleeton with her husband, Brandon, and their son, Avery.

"Mesothelioma is not a one-size-fits-all disease. You don’t just look up the cookbook and the recipe," Kindler said. "It's a disease that has its own individual aspects to it, and we tailor our treatment to the patient. Patients will receive the optimal treatment when they come to the experts, who live, eat, and breathe this disease 24 hours a day, and who really are focused on trying to develop a cure."

Added Turaga, "From our research to the treatment plans, our team thinks about each and every patient. We are able to bring every single discovery that we make in the lab right to our patients."

Blackford-Cleeton is grateful for what she has gained as a result of the successful surgery: her son, Avery, and her improved health.

"Everything is a new normal, but my new normal is good," she said.


Mesothelioma Program

The UChicago Medicine mesothelioma program is one of the largest programs dedicated to comprehensive mesothelioma care in the United States. We offer a full range of treatment options, from novel targeted therapies and advanced surgical techniques to clinical trials of promising new treatments.

Learn more about our mesothelioma program

Hedy Kindler, MD

Hedy Lee Kindler, MD, is an internationally recognized cancer expert who specializes in the medical treatment of pancreatic cancer, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, and malignant mesothelioma (a type of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure). She serves as medical director for the gastrointestinal oncology and mesothelioma programs.

Learn more about Dr. Kindler

Kiran K. Turaga, MD, MPH

Kiran Turaga, MD, MPH, is a surgical oncologist with a special interest in the treatment of advanced malignancies, including metastatic cancers. He is an expert in regional perfusion including hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a technique that delivers high doses of heated chemotherapy directly to abdominal organs.

Learn more about Dr. Turaga